My First Electa WristwatchCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
While I was hunting for a strap for my grandfather's Rolex wristwatch, I learned that watches like his, with narrow fixed wire lugs for attaching the strap to the case, were called trench watches due to their use in the trenches during the Great War. The narrow lugs of these watches meant that the usual men's straps that were available to me would not fit, which started a long and fruitless search and ultimately led to me having a strap custom made, replicating an original period design.
While I was searching for trench watch straps, I naturally found a lot of trench watches. The one on this page caught my attention. I already had a wristwatch with a Borgel case, so I know what this, but this one was a bit earlier and its clean appearance and good condition attracted me, so I bought it. My records show that this was only the second trench watch that I bought; today it is still one of my favourite wristwatches.
For the face shot I dressed the watch with a Type B design strap in premium Italian brandy leather with black contrast stitching. I like the way that the black stitching contrasts with the light colour of the leather and gives extra definition to the shape of the design – any of my designs can be made with contrast stitching as a custom order. Of course the strap has one of my Type GW hallmarked sterling silver buckles.
The watch was made at a time when British retailers didn't allow the names of foreign manufacturers on the dial of the watches they sold, so to see the name “Electa” on the dial was very unusual, which started me off down another rabbit hole . . .
The watch is a very typical trench watch from the time of the Great War (1914 to 1918) with a Borgel screw case The salient features of the face are the skeleton numerals and hands, which originally carried radium luminous paint. However, the radium paint had been removed before I bought the watch and not replaced. This leaves the watch with a very clean looking face. I have considered repainting the hands and numerals with modern luminous paint, because like many people I like a watch that glows in the dark! But modern luminous compounds don't look right on a watch of this age, and if they are tinted to get the correct colour, that kills most of the glow. Even the vintage tint Super Luminova I find unsatisfactory in this regard.
The dial is vitreous enamel, and is very unusual in that it carries the manufacturer's brand Electa fired onto it in vitreous ink. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British retailers did not allow foreign manufacturers to put their names on dials, so the name on this dial is very unusual. The only explanation that I have been able to advance is that during the war there was a high demand for wristwatches and that to make up an order this watch was included to make up a batch of urgently required watches.
1918 Electa Advert.
Copyright © The Gallet Group
I did consider whether the watch was a marriage: a movement and case that didn't start life together. But since collecting this watch I have found others with serial numbers that are close on either side to the numbers in this watch so I am sure that it is not a marriage. The only explanation that I have been able to come up with for the Electa name on the dial of my wristwatch is that, during the Great War when this watch was made, there was such a demand that the makers were struggling to fulfil orders for wristwatches. Enamel dials take time to make and perhaps, when a batch of otherwise complete and ready to go watches was found to be short of one dial, an existing dial with the name Electa on it was found, the batch was completed and hurriedly shipped off to England.
Long before the Great War a wristwatch had become part of the standard kit every officer in the British Army. During the war, there was a huge demand for wristwatches by newly commissioned officers getting kitted out for the front, and manufacturers struggled to produce enough wristwatches to keep up with the demand. This was also the time and reason that many fob watches were converted to wristwatches. Today sometimes people think that such conversions preceded purpose made wristwatches, but that was not what happened. Conversions were performed during the Great War in response to the sudden and overwhelming demand for wristwatches.
The early history of the Electa watchmaking company is unknown, but by the time my watch was made it had been taken over by Gallet and become an important brand for them; so important in fact that the company was renamed “Gallet & Co., Fabrique d'horlogerie Electa”. The advertisement shown here, from the 1918 edition of the Indicateur Davoine, was provided to me by David R. Laurence, Managing Director of The Gallet Group, Inc. www.GalletWatch.com, and shows a cavalry officer inspecting his Electa wristwatch. Whether it was a Borgel watch cannot be determined from the picture, but many Electa watches were cased in Borgel cases like mine. The advertisement is a clear illustration of why trench watches are often also called “officer's watches.”
The crystal is a modern acrylic plastic replacement. Unbreakable glass, really celluloid, came into use for wristwatches during the Great War, instead of the fragile glass that was used for watch crystals before. I don't see this as unauthentic, original celluloid crystals are sometimes seen but most yellowed long ago to a point at which it was difficult to tell the time and they were replaced in the course of service.
The watch case is 35mm diameter, which is a typical size for a trench watch and a man's wristwatch of the period. Some men's wristwatches were slightly smaller, but if anyone tries to tell you that a fancy wristwatch with fixed wire lugs of around 30 millimetres diameter or smaller is a man's watch, don't believe them. Ladies' wristwatches of this description were made from around 1890s; today unscrupulous or ignorant people try to pass them off as trench watches because they think they will get more money for them that way.
My First Electa Wristwatch Movement: Click image to enlarge.
My First Electa Wristwatch Case: Click image to enlarge.
The movement is a good quality, with a jewelled straight line Swiss lever escapement, cut bimetallic compensation balance, a blued steel balance spring with a Breguet overcoil and 15 jewel bearings. The bridges, the flat plates that hold the train wheel bearings and the winding wheels, are made of brass, nickel plated for corrosion resistance. The wheels are also made of brass, gold plated for corrosion resistance. I have now serviced a few of these Electa movements and they are very nicely made, they come apart and go back together very easily.
It turns out that I was pretty lucky to be able to put a name to the manufacturer, very few watches with this movement have a name on the dial, or indeed anywhere! However, the shape of the central bridge and the cocks for the fourth and escape wheels are very distinctive and easy to spot.
In addition to the 15 jewel type in this watch, these movements were also a made in a higher grade 17 jewel version with the jewels set in chatons, and also with with Reed's whiplash regulator adjuster with swan neck spring for precise adjustment of the regulator lever. There was also a centre seconds version. These are all described on my movement identification page at Gallet "Electa" Wristwatch Movements.
Inside The Case
The inside of the case carries the trademark of the Borgel company, François Borgel's initials “FB” above a key, the symbol of the city of Geneva where Borgel had his watch case factory. François died in 1912 and running the company was taken over by his daughter Louisa, who was in charge when his case was made, and throughout the whole of the Great War, which is when demand for wristwatches exploded.
The case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for sterling ⋅925 silver. The date letter is the “u” of 1915 to 1916 – remember that assay office date letter punches were used over two calendar years. This u is the last letter in the cycle of London hallmarking date letters, the next letter is a Gothic “a” for 1916 to 1917. The practice of ending cycles of London date letters goes right back to 1478 when the date letter, which is really the warden's mark or assayer's mark, was introduced. Its purpose was to show who had been in post when the hallmarks were struck and was therefore changed in May every year when new wardens were elected.
The sponsor's mark “A·G·R’ in cameo within a triple circle surrounding shield was first entered at the London Assay Office on 25 June 1907 by Arthur George Rendell for Robert Pringle & Sons. At the time, Robert Pringle & Sons of 40/42 Clerkenwell Road, London, was one of the UK's largest wholesalers of jewellery, silverware, clocks and watches, and a large importer of Swiss watches. Rendell's exact role is not known but he was evidently in charge of the import of Swiss watches and, after the British law changed in 1907 to require all imported gold and silver watch cases be hallmarked in a British assay office, responsible for getting Swiss watch cases hallmarked.
Rather interestingly, before the war the cases of Electa wristwatches carried a JR sponsor's mark entered by John Rotherham for Rotherham & Sons. For the duration of the war, the cases carry Rendell's sponsor mark. It is evident that Rotherhams gave up the business of importing Electa watches during the war, and this may the source of a rumour that Rotherhams made no watches during the war. After the war, cases carry an R&S mark, also entered for Rotherham & Sons. The post-war relationship between Rotherhams and Electa is discussed at Rotherham & Sons and Electa.
The import hallmarks show that the case was made in Switzerland, but sent to England to be hallmarked after a British law requiring all imported gold and silver watch cases to be hallmarked in a British assay office came into force on 1 June 1907. An item has to be stamped with a sponsor's mark before it will be accepted at a British assay office for hallmarking, so Rendell and Robert Pringle & Sons were acting as an “assay agent” for the Swiss case manufacturer, in this case Borgel. A sponsor's mark shows who takes responsibility for an item that is submitted for hallmarking. It does not show who actually made the item.
The hand scratched mark inside the case was made by a watch repairer who serviced (cleaned and oiled) the movement. The marks would mean something to the repairer, but they used their own code so that marks couldn't be forged and a false claim made later. All mechanical watches need to be cleaned and oiled every few years to keep them running properly, and to avoid wear and damage.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated December 2021. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.